How to Let Go of the Past and Move Forward

November 8, 2019 • Shannon Flynn


Would you like to find out how to let go of the past? How often do you stop to think about the things bothering you? Of all your concerns, how many are in the past?

People often dwell on events that have already happened. They like to imagine the outcome if they had done things differently. What if you spoke up instead of leaving? What if you made up with a person you were mad at?

This habit can be useful occasionally. For example, you may realize it’s time to drop a grudge. You can consider how to tackle a similar situation in the future. However, the past can hurt. While you can’t change it, you can move on.

You May Be Holding Yourself Back Without Knowing

Dwelling on the past can happen when you least expect it. Most don’t even realize they’re doing it.

Many of us let memories of our mistakes replay in our heads. Personality plays a role, as some people ruminate on thoughts more than others.

If you feel self-doubt about your ability to excel, past mistakes can come back to haunt you. Dwelling on the past leads to lost potential for self-growth. You believe you’re doomed to making the same failures, even after learning.

Many people don’t realize fixation is a problem. Instead, they convince themselves they’re ill-suited for the challenge, perhaps due to lack of seniority or not enough education.

People also dwell on the past due to family. For example, you might blame yourself for not being close to your sister. Perhaps you’re upset your parents are arguing. Maybe you can’t stop thinking about a minor accident that happened at Thanksgiving dinner last year.

Human dynamics are complex. Many things go wrong for reasons out of our control. Relatives may misinterpret pure intentions or make snap judgements. Siblings may want space away from the family, cutting communication. Dinners get burnt, and arguments ensue.

Nevertheless, when individuals dwell on the past, they prevent themselves from enjoying the good things in life. Consider Sally, who’s been in a string of bad relationships. Finally, she meets someone who treats her well. Yet instead of gratitude for the change, Sally expects the negative emotions she previously felt. As a result, she misses out on all of the wonderful new experiences.

When people dwell on events that didn’t work out as expected, they lose confidence. Say you’ve had a lifelong dream of moving to New York City. You work years to make it happen. Ultimately, however, you realize the destination is not a good fit. This decision does not equate to failure. Instead, it’s a reminder that life throws curve balls.

You can and should make plans. Evaluate your options before making life-changing decisions. However, you can’t control everything. People who dwell on these events create barriers that block them from moving ahead. Instead, they feel anxiety and uncertainty.

People often don’t reach the conscious conclusion that dwelling on the past holds them back. Does one of the cases above ring true? Perhaps you can’t fall asleep at night due to racing thoughts. Do you over-analyze what you say and do? If so, change is possible.

Dwelling on the Past Hurts

Dwelling on past events causes reduced self-esteem and feelings of panic. Some people also claim they feel useless.

At one point, I tried to help my best friend get through to his partner, who was struggling with untreated mental illness. We researched and gathered data for months. Yet the person refused to get treatment or acknowledge the need. It was hard to see them harming themselves and their loved ones.

I was confident we’d get through to the person the whole time. That they’d realize it was time to get help for their struggles. My friend shared my hope. In the end, we were both let down. The person in need cut ties, leaving us unable to communicate further.

We came from a place of love and concern. The result, therefore, was devastating. I dwelt on the issue for months, shifting between periods of despair and anxiety. I also felt tremendous guilt. I believed I’d let my friend down, that I didn’t say the right things.

What I forgot, however, was that the mentally ill individual was an adult. They didn’t pose an immediate risk to themselves or others. They actively cut off communication. I realized I needed to stop trying, as much as it hurt.

At long last, I was able to move forward. Yet not until I’d wasted months stuck in the past. Now, I use that time as a learning experience — a reminder of the importance of living in the present.

Why You Need to Let Go

You may think learning to let go of the past is unachievable. Yet there are many reasons to give it your best effort. Letting go means forgiving someone. Consider it a chance to enjoy healthier relationships and anticipate less hostility. Studies show those who forgive mistakes also see improved heart health and self-esteem.

When you move on and get out of the past, you’ll notice you have more headspace to devote to the present. You can spend more time doing what matters to you, such as learning a new skill, joining a social group or hitting the gym.

You may find thoughts from the past bombard your head when trying to sleep. If the problem is severe, you may deal with periods of insomnia, which can leave you feeling fatigued and mentally depleted. Once you start focusing on the here-and-now, it’s easier to drift into peaceful and uninterrupted sleep.

It may seem impossible to control your thoughts, especially when they’re racing through your brain. Luckily, you can learn practical ways to calm your mind and focus on the present.

How to Let Go of the Past

What do you dwell on most? The strategies you use to move on will vary depending on your answer. Yet some tried-and-true techniques work in almost every case.

Start by forgiving yourself. Practicing self-kindness isn’t easy, but it can work wonders for your well-being. Remind yourself that, during any given moment, various factors influence your decisions. We don’t make the best choices every time, and that’s okay. We try the best we can, but we’re only human. Plus, certain things will always remain out of your control.

Think about starting a daily meditation practice. A major part of meditation involves noticing your thoughts like passing clouds in the sky. However, another concept is to learn to live in the now. Don’t worry about the past or future.

Try present moment awareness meditation, which is effective in managing anxiety and depression. During this practice, focus on your breathing, bodily sensations, sounds and thoughts. Whenever your mind wants to spiral into negative emotions, latch onto something in the present. Think of the sound of your breath or the feeling of your back against a cushion.

Some people need to confide in others about the past before they can move on. If that’s the case for you, speak to someone you trust. Be honest about why you’ve found it hard to keep going. Try not to dwell on the subject or bring it up repeatedly. Instead, consider the cathartic experience an opportunity to remove a weight from your shoulders.

It can be helpful to jot down your thoughts in a journal. Write about how you feel. How does dwelling on past events disrupt your life? Avoid assigning the blame to someone else. Instead, use your journal as a place to express your feelings. Determine what actionable steps you’ll take to stop them from bringing you down.

It’s incredibly healing to surround yourself with people who lift your spirits and make you feel empowered. Yes, the past hurts. Yet being around loved ones who encourage you to embrace the present can help you start living.

You may want to seek help from a counselor. Therapy gives you the tools needed to cope with life and transform it for the better. We often have blind spots when it comes to our own lives — we’re too close to the situation. Talking to a third-party can be an excellent way to gain a new perspective.

Resist setting expectations that require action from someone else. For example, you claim you’ll move on once the offending party apologizes. Yet you can’t depend on others when it comes to personal growth. Instead, focus on how you can foster improvements at an individual level.

Empower Yourself to Move Forward

Now that you know how to let go of the past — and why — take action toward progress. Take up meditation and teach yourself to stay in the present. Grab a journal and jot down your thoughts. Surround yourself with loving friends and family who create positive experiences. Plus, you can also schedule an appointment with a counselor, a person trained to help you succeed.

Improvements won’t happen immediately, but it’s essential to keep trying. Persistence usually pays off.